I was born and raised in Vermont, in the glory of the maples. When I went to Colorado for my college year in 2004, I felt not only the general pain of leaving the house, but also the specific pain – worse than saying goodbye to Ma and Pa – of missing the hardwoods and their phantasmagoria of foliage. What do the Rockies have to offer? Blue spruce? Dark, brooding fir trees? I knew little.
On my first weekend in the west, a classmate and I drove into the highlands with no agenda and landed on the Kebler Pass, a dirt road that connects the small mountain town of Crested Butte with the even smaller mountain town of Paonia and on the way winds through some of the largest and oldest Organisms of our planet. Populus tremuloides, the quivering aspen grows in clonal colonies, meaning that each trunk in a grove is genetically identical and connected by a huge underground root system called a rhizome. A few hundred miles away, in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, the Trembling Giant (also known as Pando, Latin for “I spread”) weighs an estimated 13 million pounds and covers more than 100 acres. Nobody is sure of the exact statistics on the mosaic of Kebler groves in the Gunnison National Forest, but researchers suggest they could be larger. After what my friend and I saw on this breathtaking September weekend – a panning for gold that stretches across entire mountain slopes, an infinite number of leaves, immense groves that blend to the horizon – I’ve sold pretty well.
This amazing tree vision inspired a dream, fantasy, crazy idea that I couldn’t or didn’t want to shake. What happens when you hike for hours, avoiding maps and GPS, and deliberately getting lost in the maze of an over-tree, a mega-body? What if you pull a hammock out of your backpack, hang it 30 feet from the deck between two pale, chalky branches, and retreat into the drowsy dizziness of an autumn afternoon? What if, after falling asleep, you wake up at dusk and coyotes howl and woodpeckers drum and deer rummage in the ferny underbrush? Do you realize, in an instant revelation, that these animals, like you, resemble the mites and other microcritters that are on a person’s eyelashes – that you are all so tiny, so tiny? Does your mind explode with joy at this realization, with the bliss of being grasped by such greatness?
These are not rhetorical questions. At least they don’t have to be.
Hammock, sleeping bag, foam Thermarest pad – check. Harness, carabiners, additional slings, Prusik loops, ATC for abseiling – check. Spool of disturbingly worn rope donated by a buddy who actually understands knots and anchors – check out. Dubious skills, but enough grit and gum to (hopefully) get the job done – check-a-frigging-roo! Almost prepared, I stepped off the dusty Kebler Pass road on a September morning and finally entered the sun-drenched subtleties, the shady secrets, in search of the perfect hanging campsite.
About this search. I learned technical tree climbing in Arizona’s ponderosa pine while working on a demographic study of northern hawks at Forest Service. (Take the nestlings, lower them in a sack to the ground crew, wait for measurements to be taken and blood drawn, pull the nestlings back up.) Usually my boss used a hunting bow to fire the fishing line over a sturdy branch, lifted a strand of parachute line with the fishing line, picked up a static rope with the parachute line, and then nodded to me. Mechanical Petzl movers were important, and a worn red helmet was comforting, but in the end the bold link made anything possible. There are many such links on ponds. Not so much on aspens.
Bushwhacking south of Kebler, I was rewarded with sightings of a dozen red squirrels, a great horned owl dozing on their midday roost, a cute mossy boulder in front of a cute mossy creek, and exactly zero fleshy limbs within my limited range. Unfortunately, I don’t own a crossbow, slingshot or potato cannon, so I had to rely on thin biceps and a dodgy sidearm to throw my gear into the canopy. Also, I refused to settle for any supertree, just an ordinary two-bit mega-body.
(Photo: Courtesy Leath Tonino)
A Forest Service website on aspen ecology states: “The members of a clone often differ from those of a neighboring clone by a variety of characteristics such as leaf shape and size, bark character, branching habit, disease resistance and air pollution, gender, flush timing and autumn leaf color. “That last feature was my guide – color. I didn’t pretend the trip was a real expedition to discover and accurately describe a Kebler version of the Trembling Giant, but I knew from experience that certain groves stay green well into late autumn while others are yours Let gold burst early. A casual visual overview, I thought, should guide me straight to the heart of a particularly woolly botanical animal. And that’s what I wished for.
I finally found my quarry a few hours before sunset – stumbled around in it, giggled, and cursed happily with my neck stretched out. White columns scratched in black with bear claw calligraphy. Strong pillars supporting a gilded ceiling reminiscent of ornate domes in Venice and Rome. A thousand stems, 10 thousand stems, 10 bacillion stems! I would have loved to draw a rough balance sheet, walk around a circle, take notes, but the slanted light and the cold in the air insisted on something else. Nerdy Citizen Science could be postponed until tomorrow. I had to empty my backpack, sort my confused gadgets, check out the art of the Prusik tow bar, and start the shitshow.
Uh, the safe and methodical ascent. Yes that’s right. Safe and methodical.
Jack Turner writes in his book Teewinot, “I’ve always wanted to hang a hammock high in an aspen grove and live among the leaves.” This comes from a member of the Elite Exum Mountain Guides, a grizzled mountaineer who has spent decades in the Greater Ranges – the amazingly epic landscapes you would assume would make relatively dinky western hardwood forests boring. But no, the murmuring, vibrating, mesmerizing aspens force our attention in ways that icy slopes and towering granite buttresses cannot. Because the aspens are alive – they are a far-reaching life in the case of the Kebler Pass. These ethereal zones above the tree line, although exciting and wildly beautiful, present the sky, not the homely earth. (Recall that our primate ancestors took refuge from predatory predators in the forest canopy, and that attraction is likely encoded within us at a cellular level.)
I thought about it when the uncomfortable, arduous struggle (twigs in my hair, fumbled nalgene, wild thrashing galore) was over and I was floating in my nylon aerie. Far from being comfortably hung due to the harness I wanted to wear all night and the heavy wedgie it created, but still hung. A couple of stories above the ground. Sweat drying. Spiders keep me company, traverse invisible filaments and playfully taunt me with their graceful agility.
And I also thought of an essay on giant sequoias that I read in the New York Times Magazine in 2017, not long after Trump became president. The author, Jon Mooallem, stressed that this was a good moment for humility and perspective in America, and for this reason he went on a pilgrimage to meet lives older and bigger than his own. While I applaud Mooallem’s initiative, a part of me – the part that swayed, the gazed, that reveled in the luscious suffocation of hues and textures and tones, the turmoil of declining chlorophyll, the dendritic complexity – has the need to watch my imagination to change. keep pushing. The Kebler aspens eclipsed me, but even better, they left me with a sense of embedding and immersion, a sense of how the living space holds us. My preliminary hypothesis is that the average nature lover’s love for nature has less to do with scenery and sporting fun than with the world’s embrace. Find a niche, a place within the broader place. Appreciate the wilderness that surrounds and preserves it.
Peanut butter sandwich for dinner – check. Airplane bottle of scotch for dessert – check. Baby in a cot, cozy and sleepy, his fancy ecosophical thoughts are muffled by the lullaby of a leafy breeze – check-a-frigging-roo! My heavy eyelids closed and opened, closed and opened. As I hovered on the edge of consciousness, despite the lingering wedgie, I was delighted with the image of stars through leaves, a glittering universe beyond cracks in the ever-changing crown.
And then, apparently after only 15 minutes, the morning choir woke me up, warblers and nuthatches scurried around my head and crouched next to my toes. My spine was kinked. Frost had silvered half of my sleeping bag. I suggested a cold instant coffee, dismantled the camp, and rappeled down.
Not out of something, but deeper into something. Let’s call it Populus tremuloides, the supertree, the megabeing. Call it what you want.
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Main Photo: Justin Bailie / Tandem
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